Telling people that you are going to Kyrgyzstan often elicits “Whatsitstan” remarks or looks of disbelief. Most people have never even heard of Central Asia’s sleepiest and most beautiful country, crammed with lush valleys, glaciated mountains, steaming hot springs, and some of the coolest hats you’ll ever see in your life. Prepare for this to change now though, as word gets out and folks start realising that the comparisons to Switzerland are not that far off, only it’s a lot more affordable.
My wife and I spent a month journeying across the country with two good friends, mostly travelling on foot, loading up our gear onto horses, which are the pulse of the land and outnumber cars by more than double. An ancient Kyrgyz proverb says that “horses are the wings of the Kyrgyz,” and in the 19th century, there were said to be some two million horses in Kyrgyzstan. And while the modern world slowly creeps across the high steppe of Central Asia, out in the mountains, the old way still prevails.
Some say that the Kyrgyz were born on horses, and it certainly looks that way when you see young boys not too far past the age of being able to walk already trotting comfortably on their steeds, even crossing raging rivers without flinching. Up in the highlands of the Jyrgalan Valley in the foothills of the mighty Tian Shan Range, our only company on the alpine plateaus are nomads, who herd their sheep for several months up to the high pastures, staying for the short summers to graze. We delight every afternoon in setting up camp overlooking verdant valleys, being offered freshly baked naan bread and yogurt from the herders, who are decked out, as are all traditional Kyrgyz men, in kalpaks; high-crowned felt hats that give everyone an impeccably stylish look, and even sharing in the national drink of kumuz, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk!
The alpine wildflowers in Kyrgyzstan put even French Impressionist masters to shame. As a lifelong trekker and mountain-lover, I’ve seen my share of flower fields, but here it is bordering the sublime, as well as the ridiculous. In most mountain environments, one sticks to the path and tries not to crush a single blossom, but here there are no trails, and we are crossing fields so spectacularly colourful, it is as if a botanist dumped bags of seeds here that have resulted in every inch of earth being populated by petals. Thousands of poppies, St. John’s wort, forget-me-nots, asters, gentian, primula, and hordes of others that I cannot identify cover every inch of land, and it’s pointless to try and avoid trampling them, and we all willingly stumble and fall into the literal beds of roses.
Further across the country, on the border with Tajikistan, the mighty Pamirs rear their brilliant white summits. Massive peaks of over 7,000 metres dominate the landscape here, fronted by carpets of rolling green down below. Traditional yurt settlements are the norm here, often the only signs of human intrusions for miles. While most countries around the world have either seriously endangered their natural beauty spots or else have strict regulations to try and protect them, Kyrgyzstan just seems to be blessed with an abundant amount of natural wonders and open space, not to mention a tiny enough population (six million, two million of which live in Bishkek) and plenty of room for people to enjoy things.
Small towns like Karakol, set near the banks of the giant high altitude Lake Issyk-Kul, retain Old World Russian charm (Kyrgyzstan once was part of the Soviet Union), filled with traditional gingerbread houses and onion-domed wooden Orthodox churches. These towns offer the chance to access the internet, freshen up, dine on superb skewers of shashlik meat kebabs, and relax in the burgeoning small hotel/hostel/AirBnB scene that is springing up everywhere. But these are best left for short stints, as the real allure of Kyrgyzstan lies back in the hills.
Here one finds Kyrgyzstan at its most classic. The mountains, the grasslands, and then a yurt or two, with possibly a rusting old Russian Lada out front, a pair of milk pails, some livestock, and smoke from the wood stove telling you someone is home. The homesteaders here have a dose of rugged American do-it-yourself-ism, and are a cross between the hippies of the 70s and the living off the grid crowd of the same era. The door is always open out here, there are no locks, and you’re pretty much guaranteed a cup of tea to go with the jaw dropping views.
Get here soon though. The world is slowly discovering Kyrgyzstan (“Whichistan?”). In the Jyrgalan Valley, the country’s first “freeride” skiing program, where horses take skiers and their gear up into the mountains, and then leave them to plunge downhill on their own, has perked the interest of intrepid skiers from Austria, Switzerland, and France, while the big peaks of the Pamirs offer high altitude mountaineering, and rock climbing options found out in the rugged Patagonian-like spires of the Karavshin canyons in the south entice excited adventurers. For the more “sedate,” there are yurt stays, leisurely horse treks, and of course plentiful natural hot springs to soak all the hardships of the journey away.